It’s the sound that no dog owner wants to hear: their dog retching as they try to regurgitate something they ate.
While these noises are never a good sign, what do they mean exactly? When should you be concerned? After all, you don’t want to rush your dog to the vet only to find out they just ate a few blades of grass, but you don’t want to take any chances with their life either.
Below, we’ll fill you in on everything you need to know about this behavior, including when it’s time to worry.
What’s the Difference Between Dry Heaving, Gagging, and Retching?
While they seem similar, the fact is the two of the three acts are slightly different, and identifying which one your dog is actually doing will go a long way toward determining the proper course of action you should take.
Dry heaving is when your dog is attempting to vomit, but nothing is coming up. You’ll see a whole-body spasm, starting in the stomach and undulating out the throat. Dry heaving and retching are the same thing.
Gagging is just what it sounds like — your dog is having a throat spasm that makes it difficult for them to breathe and/or swallow. It looks and sounds exactly like it would in humans. It’s completely different from choking, however.
Why Do Dogs Dry Heave?
Dogs dry heave all the time, for a variety of reasons. Generally speaking, it’s because they’re feeling nauseated. While this can be due to an underlying illness, most of the time, it’s a temporary thing that will soon pass.
Many dogs eat grass to soothe feelings of nausea, and since they can’t digest it, they’ll often retch trying to bring it back up. If your dog’s unable to vomit all the grass back up, you’ll likely find it in their poop in a day or so.
Some dogs retch because they’re feeling hungry. If it’s been a while since your pup has eaten anything, consider offering them some food. Try to keep it bland, though, so limit the options to a high-protein kibble or something like chicken and rice.
Occasionally, though, dry heaving can be the sign of something more sinister. Dogs can retch due to allergies, exposure to parasites, bloat, or ingesting a poisonous substance. While all of these are undesirable, the last two can be fatal.
If your dog is only dry heaving every now and then, you probably have nothing to worry about — the retching is their way of solving the problem. If it’s frequent or especially bad, however, you should consult a doctor.
Why Do Dogs Gag?
Watching your dog gag can be terrifying, as you’ll likely be concerned that they’ll choke to death right in front of you. However, gagging is usually caused by an inflammation of the larynx, not an obstruction of the airway.
There can be any number of reasons that a dog gags, including irritation caused by dust or smoke in the air, inhaled bits of food, or a respiratory disease like kennel cough.
You should do a little investigation to see if you can spot the reason that your dog is gagging. If the cause is obvious, like sniffing around in a dusty area, then you should have nothing to worry about. If the cause isn’t immediately obvious and the gagging continues, you should probably take your dog to the vet.
Some dogs can experience something called laryngeal paralysis. This is caused by the larynx not closing properly, allowing food, dust, and other debris to enter the airway. Some breeds are more prone to this than others, especially Labradors, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Golden Retrievers, Weimaraners, and Great Danes.
When Should You Worry About Dry Heaving?
While the occasional dry heave is nothing to worry about, frequent dry heaving is more concerning than actual vomiting. For one thing, vomiting actually expels whatever’s causing the problem, whereas dry heaving fails to eliminate it from the body.
Repeated attempts to bring up a foreign object can damage your dog’s stomach or throat, especially if the foreign object has sharp corners on it. Also, dry heaving can take an object that was sitting harmlessly in the stomach and put it in the throat, potentially choking the animal.
Also, when your dog vomits, you can at least see what the problem was (assuming that you’re willing to sift through dog puke). With dry heaving, you can’t tell whether the problem is caused by something relatively benign or something you need to worry about.
There are several potentially serious issues that could cause dry heaving, and we can’t list all the signs and symptoms for each one here.
When Should You Worry About Gagging?
As with dry heaving, the occasional gag is nothing to worry about. It’s your dog’s normal response to irritation, the same as you coughing or clearing your throat.
If your dog seems to be fine otherwise, it’s probably safe to just monitor the situation for two or three days. If the gagging stops, you’re fine. If it continues longer than that, you should see a doctor.
However, if your dog seems distressed or is having trouble breathing, it warrants an emergency vet visit. It may still be nothing, but you’re going to want to be sure.
Also, you should isolate your dog from other pets, just to be safe. Many respiratory illnesses (especially kennel cough) are highly contagious. Brachycephalic dogs are more prone to respiratory infections, so if you own a snub-nosed dog, you should be quick to arrange that vet visit.
Take These Behaviors Seriously But Don’t Panic
Dry heaving and gagging aren’t desirable behaviors, but they’re usually not cause for alarm either. Unless your dog is displaying other symptoms or the behavior won’t stop, you’re probably fine just keeping a close eye on it at home.
If, however, you notice other warning signs, you should err on the side of caution and take your pooch to a vet as soon as possible.
Featured image credit: Mary Lynn Strand, Shutterstock